Would having the name “Demetria” destine a young girl to develop a deep love of growing plants? Demeter, after all, was the Greek goddess of the harvest, credited with gifting agriculture to mankind.
Demetria Christo says that the significance of her name has always been in the back of her mind and may indeed have led to her career as co-founder, with Tulane classmate Travis Cleaver, of EcoUrban Sustainable Landscaping in 2007.
“I was named for my grandmother who was from the old country, Cyprus, where growing your own food and living sustainably were old traditions,” Christo said. “I’m sure that those traditions had an influence on me, too.”
Christo will share her knowledge of sustainable gardening Saturday, Sept. 13, when she speaks to a group at Parkway Partners’ Second Saturday event about “Edible Landscaping,” the art of integrating fruits, herbs and vegetables into an ornamental garden.
The process is easier than one might think, she says.
“All it takes is a little planning and the intention of establishing a healthy ecosystem in the garden,” Christo explained. “It can mean using plants to make an edible hedge or groundcover, or planting vines that flower beautifully and also fruit.”
For a low edible hedge, Christo recommends rosemary.
“It’s virtually maintenance-free and smells so good when you brush up against it,” she said. “There’s a house on Bayou St. John that has nothing but rosemary out front, and it’s great.” On the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Christo advises that blueberry bushes can make a low hedge and provide color in the fall when their leaves turn red and orange. Another example is passion flower, an ornamental vine that is also productive, yielding passionfruit.
“The flowers are just amazing,” Christo said of the complex blossoms that can be white, purple or red. “I like to think of plants like the passion flower as being interactive because you can watch them as they develop and the flower buds unfold to the point at which the fruit is ready to pick. They are changing all the time.”
Christo and Cleaver specialize in creating environments in which plants, birds and beneficial insects can flourish without a great deal of maintenance.
“It all starts with the soil, and there is nothing better for that than compost,” Christo said. “We really like to encourage people to make their own because it’s much simpler to do than they think it will be and it returns nutrients to the soil.”
EcoUrban stocks 45-gallon olive barrels and sells them as composters. Unlike the round composting devices mounted on frames that are meant to be turned with a handle, Christo’s rest on the ground and are turned by rolling them.
“I like this approach a lot better that the hand-cranked ones because I find that with those, the contents eventually make them too heavy to turn. With these, you just roll them over a couple of times a month and then roll them to the bed where you want to use the compost,” she said.
Instead of making multiple trips to the compost barrel to dispose of compostable kitchen scraps every day, Christo instead puts her scraps in a paper bag in the freezer and then deposits the bag in the composting bin once a week. To ensure a good mix of brown and green vegetation in the bin, she keeps a paper grocery bag filled with leaves next to the composting bin and adds the leaves when she adds the kitchen scraps.
As easy as home composting is, Christo realizes that many gardeners may not have time or an inclination for it, so she recommends purchasing high-quality compost and soil amendments from local sources.
“Parkway Partners will have worm castings for sale the day of my talk and those are the best thing you can add to your soil,” she said.
Raised beds – at least 8 inches deep – are a must in most gardens if edible greens and vegetables are to be grown because of the heavy metals found in high concentrations in most area soils.
“Definitely get your soil tested,” she advised. “At one place we tested, the concentration of heavy metals was 3000 parts per million and the EPA recommends a max of 400 parts per million.”
Reducing the amount of maintenance required for a “productive” landscape — one which includes edibles — is every gardener’s dream, and Christo says there are ways to do it without harming the environment or disturbing its ecological balance.
“We use neem oil because it is an effective pesticide and fungicide but does not harm beneficial insects,” Christo said. “The best way to handle stubborn weeds is with mulch.”
Corrugated cardboard — without tape and uncoated — can serve as an excellent primary weed barrier before being layered with a thick blanket of pine straw. Paper grocery bags also work well.
“We pin the cardboard or bags in place with pins made for landscape cloth, then add the pine straw to cover it up,” Christo said. “We like pine straw because it’s local and doesn’t require cutting down trees like cypress mulch does.”
Christo wants the word to get out about just how easy it is to garden sustainably.
“We’re just so lucky in New Orleans to have room to garden,” she said.
R. Stephanie Bruno is a contributing writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.